History of the Panama Railroad Part - II:
At the end of twenty months, by toil and sweat and back-break, seven precarious miles of track had been laid. The ends of the rails lay on reasonably solid ground at Gatun, on the edge of the Chagres valley. Work came to a halt. The money was all gone and the backers could not understand how it could take anyone, no matter how lazy or what the difficulties, so long to build a measly seven miles of railroad.
Then nature came to the rescue. Two big paddle-wheel steamers, the Georgia and the Philadelphia, arrived in the bay carrying more than a thousand gold-hungry men. The passengers were to debark at the mouth of the Chagres River, and continue their journey up the river by Cayucos and small boats. Fortunately for the struggling railroad, the weather was bad, and the seas rough. The ships were not able to get as close to land as they wanted, and some people drowned in their attempts to reach land. The ships were force to take refuge in Limon Bay, and the new docks being built for the train. Imagine the astonishment when the passengers found a railroad ready-made to whisk them across the Isthmus. Somebody suggested that they put some Flat Cars on the train and transport the passengers to Gatun, and from there, start the trip up the Chagres. Once the reached the town of Gorgona or Cruces, they would go by land, walking and riding mules or horses over the Las Cruces Trail to Panama.
The road builders were appalled at the prospect of their pitiful facilities being overwhelmed by such a mob of men -- most of them armed and in a big hurry. They protested that their road was only seven miles long and came to an abrupt stop in an impassable jungle. Who cared! Seven miles were seven miles. The '49ers would handle the jungle when they got to it. Frantic to get rid of the mob, the trainmen set fares which were sky-high - $25.00 to ride seven miles and $10 to walk the right of way and $3.00 per 100 pounds of luggage to be hauled to the end of the track. It seemed a bargain to the Yankees who piled aboard the work trains and were on their way.
From then on San Lorenzo was doomed. The bonanza for the Indians who operated the canoes was over. All ships discharged at Manzanillo Island.
In New York the effect of this initial thousand passengers was electric. Despite its puny length, the railroad was a success. More money was raised and the work continued. Slowly and painfully the tracks wormed thier way across rivers, through the jungles and over the mountains.
This infusion of money saved the company and made it an ongoing money maker. The directors of the company immediately ordered passenger cars, and the railway began operation with initially 40 miles (64 km) of track still to be laid. Each year they added more and more track and charged more for their services. This greatly boosted the value of the company's franchise, which enabled it to sell more stock to finance the remainder of the project.
On February 2, 1852, the town on Manzanillo was incorporated and named Aspinwall in honor of the originator of the road. By March, 1852, regular passenger train service was running 16 miles from Aspinwall. By July 1852, the lines had been laid to the town of Barbacoas, 23 miles from Aspinwall and reached the Chagres River where a massive bridge had to be built.
On October 10, 1852, John L. Stephens, the president of the company died and W. C. Young succeeded him, as president of the company. With Stephens death, things looked bleak for the company. He was a hands on man, and worked very diligently, along with the men in Panama. When he was too sick to continue working, he went to New York, where he died soon after. A new contractor had been secured to finish the railway, from Barbacoas to Panama.
At Barbacoas, they started to build a 300 foot bridge across the Chagres. At this point, the river had been know to rise over 45 feet, in a couple of hours, after heavy rains. When the bridge was nearly completed, one span was washed away in a great flood. This was another major delay for the railway. Work on the bridge was very slow, and after a year, it was had not been completed. The contractor working on the bridge, went bankrupt and the company took over the work. At this time, a new president had been appointed for the company, David Hoadley. Colonel A. J. Center was appointed vice-president, and then sent to Panama to become the resident superintendent of the enterprise. When he arrived on the Isthmus, the work was restarted with great vigor.
Forty-seven and a half miles of railroad had required 170 bridges and culverts of 15 feet or more, 134 bridges and culverts of less than 15 feet, a statistic that gives some idea of the difficulties there had been in making headway in such half-drowned country.
The Panama Railroad is possibly the only line in the world that literally lifted itself up by its own shoelaces. All during the gold rush, miners were taken as far as the end of the road and then continued the journey on foot. The same high fares were in existence for years. Why reduce them? The passengers never complained! By the time the road was finished, nearly a third of its tremendous cost had already been liquidated.
In January, 1854 excavation began at the summit of the Continental Divide, where the earth had to be cut down over 40 feet. Several months were spent digging this cut. The road over the crest of the continental divide, at Culebra, was finally completed from the Atlantic side in January 1855, thirty-seven miles (60 km) of track having been laid from Colón (then called Aspinwall). A second team, working under less harsh conditions with railroad track, ties, railroad cars, locomotives and other supplies brought around Cape Horn by ship, completed their 11-mile (17.7 km) of track from Panamá City to the summit on the Pacific side of the Isthmus on a rainy midnight on January 27, 1855.
Notwithstanding all of the difficulties and discouragements, the road was successfully completed in 1855, just five years from the date of the beginning of its construction, at a total expenditure of $7,407,535.00. On January 27,1855, at midnight, in the pitch dark and in pelting rain, lit by sputtering whale oil lamps, the last rail was set in place on pine crossties. Totten himself had driven the last spike with a nine-pound maul. The following day, on January 28, 1855 the world's first transcontinental train ran from ocean to ocean. The massive project was done!
Upon completion the road stretched 47 miles (76 km), 3,020 feet (76 km) with a maximum grade of sixty feet to the mile (11.4 m/km or 1.14%). The summit grade, located 37.38 miles (60.16 km) from the Atlantic and 10.2 miles (16.4 km) from the Pacific, was 258.64 feet (78.83 m) above the assumed grade at the Atlantic terminus and 242.7 feet (74.0 m) above that at the Pacific, being 263.9 feet (80.4 m) above the mean tide of the Atlantic Ocean and the summit ridge 287 feet (87 m) above the same level.
They now had the job of making things permanent and up grading the railroad. Hastily erected Wooden bridges that quickly decayed in the tropical heat and often torrential rain had to be replaced with Iron bridges. Wooden trestles had to be converted to gravel embankments. The original pine ties only lasted about a year and they had to be replaced with lignum vitae ties, a wood so hard that they had to drill the ties before nailing the spikes.
The frightful toll of death, evidenced by the hundreds of wooden crosses that marked the graves of those who succumbed, gave rise to the epigrammatic and gruesome statement that "every tie in the Panama Railroad represents the life of some man who paid the price of its construction with his life."
The honor due these intrepid engineers, who with their men held to duty when it was more reasonable to leave it, has never been given: and the tragic fate that befell many of them has not been written in epic, song or story. Their only monument today is the Panama Railroad, the completion of which marked one of the greatest achievements of the age and will ever be a memorial to the dauntless courage of its brave builders and their story is one of the most gallant in the annals of commerce.
That Col. Totten was the dominating force back of this ambitious project is evident by the reports, and his energy and almost super-human endurance in prosecuting the enterprise is amazing. Ten years he spent in Panama, the first five in construction and the second five years in operation. He was employed after the completion of the road as Manager. Shortly after its inauguration, Col. Totten was stricken with yellow fever. For days he lingered between life and death. At last his Spanish doctor told him and his family that there was no hope for him. Hearing this, Col. Totten roused himself and with the same indomitable courage that had marked every step of his work in building the railroad said, "You are mistaken, sir; not yet. What is to become of the road! Yellow fever can't kill a Totten. I am going to get well!" And he did.
The inauguration of the Panama Railroad is graphically described in the Daily Courier of Aspinwall, New Granada, February 24, 1855. There was a special train with guests and at all the stations floral arches were erected. The day ended with a grand banquet at the Aspinwall Hotel, the social center at that time of Panama. The editorial of this issue of the Courier is interesting:
"The communication between the two oceans (Atlantic and Pacific) by railway may now be considered permanently established. The iron was connected on the evening of January 27th and on the following day (January 28th) that sure harbinger of North American civilization and triumph, the 'chariot of fire', came thundering over the summit and down the Pacific slope. It was a glorious sight to witness the "iron horse' and his rider pursuing his perilous journey over fearful chasms, through mountain gorges, along pleasant valleys, winding around hoary mountain tops and perched upon a narrow shelf of mountain rock in mid-air. On, on he went, over rivers, through dense forests, plunging clear through the awful swamps, and ever as he went there came up from the caverns of the hills strange sounds and echoes that had not been disturbed since that day 'when the heavens and earth were finished and all the hosts of them.'
"The people of Panama who had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of this strange visitor greeted its approach with such a cheer of hearty good will as made the welkin ring again. Even the dimples on the placid face of the Pacific seemed brim full of happy smiles as her waves coquetted with the shore.
"Col. G. W. Totten, Chief Engineer of the Road, J. M. Center, Vice-President of the Company, Dr. T. C. Barker, one of the Medical Officers of the Company and a few citizens composed the party which left the summit and passed over the track on that occasion."
The following highly entertaining account of the inauguration of the road, as sophisticated New York viewed it, is worth copying. The Daily Courier, issued in Panama, in the issue of Friday morning, February 16, 1855, had the following from the New York Mirror:
"A SUBLIME BRIDAL--TWO OCEANS WED."
"Invitations are out for the most sublime and magnificent nuptials ever celebrated upon our planet, the wedding of the rough Atlantic to the fair Pacific Ocean. An iron necklace has been thrown across the Isthmus; the banns are already published and the bridal party will leave this city on Monday next, February 5th, to perform the august ceremony.
"Some seven millions-of dollars have been spent in achieving this union, but the fruits thereof will soon show it has been money well invested. Across the bosom of the Isthmus the golden products of our Pacific borders and the incalculable treasures of the distant Orient are destined to flow in unremitting streams.
"The stupendous enterprise of uniting the two oceans which embrace the greater portion of the globe, we are proud to say, was conceived and executed by our own citizens in the frowning face of obstacles that none but Americans could have overcome. The swamps, the mists, and miasmata of the Isthmus drove all the engineers of Europe home in despair who contemplated the gigantic undertaking and the herculean work was left to the hands and hearts of men in whose vocabulary 'there is no such word as fail'.
"The engineers of England and France pronounced the project utterly impracticable. To the late lamented Aspinwall, his associates and others, the world is indebted for the completion of the Great Bond --this commercial linking of the hemispheres--an enterprise so full of poetic sublimity and so fraught with interest coextensive with the whole earth may well command the attention of the whole world and deserves to be fitly inaugurated."
That the editor of the Aspinwall Courier was a loyal American is evidenced by the following:
"Passengers bound to California left here on the morning of the 16th and had an agreeable and expeditious transit across the line. To the United States belongs the honor of this work. From its inception to its consummation, it is purely American--American genius conceived the plan; American science pronounced it practicable; American capital has furnished the sinews; and American energy has prosecuted the gigantic enterprise to its completion in spite of the most formidable difficulties."
A Great Enterprise.
That great enterprise, the inter-oceanic or Panama Railroad across the Isthmus, is completed, and the rough Atlantic is now wedded, with an iron band, to the fair Pacific. The connection thus established, between these mighty waters, carries the mind back to the time when—
What a long stride forward has the world taken since that time! The silent sea then gazed upon by Cortes(sic)*, is now white with the commerce of all nations; upon its shores a great people have established their government and free institutions, and the islands dotted so thickly upon its bosom, have become the home of civilized and Christianized man.
The first train went over the road from Aspinwall, to Panama on the 28th of January. Its arrival at Panama was viewed with as much surprise by the native population, as Cortez* exhibited on beholding the Pacific for the first time. One of the Panama papers says—
The transit trip can now be made daily, in from five to six hours, and but a short time will probably elapse before trains will run regularly in four hours.
Despite what the poet said, Stout Cortez never saw the Darién, and never stood there on a peak, silent or otherwise. Whatever Keats said in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” it was Balboa who stood silent on a peak in Darien. Thanks to Mr. David M. Fishlow for pointing out this error.
From the beginning of the Panama Railroad's history, to its offices had been delegated unique and unusual activities, perhaps none so strange as the enforcement of law in those early days of lawlessness when New Granada was too weak and unstable to safeguard the property and maintain order. Full power was given to the railroad by the government, and the railroad officials became the recognized police of the Isthmus. That they were successful along this line was due to the fact that they employed an armed guard of forty men who were placed under the command of a Texas Ranger, Ran Runnels, who was famous in his day for daring and fierce exploits in the cause of order, and on the Isthmus he became a terror to a group of outlaws who infested the place.
A description of his personal appearance, as related by a writer who visited Panama when Runnels' word was law is interesting: "The casual observer would not mark anything very formidable in the delicate organization of the bold Ran. He is of short stature and of slightly-built frame. His hand is small and looks better suited for a lady's kid glove than to handle a bowie knife or revolver. "His boyish, well-combed head and delicate features indicate little of the daring spirit of the man, but there is a close resolute pressure of the lips, a commanding glance of the eye, a sinewy wiryness of the limbs, and an activity of movement, all of which are in character with his bold determination and lively energies.
"His guard of forty are not very impressive in appearance. A military martinet might object to such a loose assortment of braves of all colors, heights, and varieties of dress. A bare-footed, coatless, harum-scarum looking set they are, and might easier pass for the forty thieves than that number of honest guards. However, with Ran Runnels at their head, they have cleared the Isthmus of robbers and kept thousands of unruly laborers in wholesome subjection.
"Whipping, imprisonment, and shooting down in an emergency, have been liberally inflicted in the exercise of the powers delegated by the Governor of New Granada to the Company which has the power of life and death on the Isthmus, without appeal."
The completion of the Panama Railroad marked a revolutionary period in the world's traffic, and the immediate effects on transportation of the rapidly increasing demands of commerce were such that they could not be met at the beginning.
The reservoirs of trade in California and the Orient were not the only ones tapped by the railroad. When the railroad was completed, California had a population of only 500,000 while Central America had 2,000,000. On the Pacific coast of South America, heretofore accessible to the Atlantic only by way of Cape Horn, were 800,000 more. Prior to the completion of the railroad 90 per cent of the trade from the Pacific coast of Central and South America went to Europe. This trade was estimated at $60,000,000 per annum.
The Pacific coast of Latin America, primitive and backward, did not at first understand the importance of the railroad, and most ports were isolated from it. Dr. F.N. Otis says, "Central American states had at that time no means of connection with the road. Their Pacific ports had been so long shut out from remunerative commercial relations that they could not at once realize the advantages the Isthmus railroad offered over the tedious and expensive land route to the Atlantic; they required to be lifted from the ruts along which they had been creeping and groaning for ages, and placed upon this great commercial highway.: To help these backward countries make contact with the great "commercial highway," the Panama Railroad in 1856 organized a steamship line to service the Pacific ports from Panama north of San Jose de Guatemala, and a British company founded a line offering schedules south of Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. By 1858 the cargoes from these ports had an annual value of $2,000,000. South and Central America shipped indigo, cochineal, India rubber, coffee, cocoa, hides, pearl shells, tobacco and straw hats to the United States and Europe in return for manufactured goods.
All the money the company had had been spent on the road's construction; the equipment was inadequate and it was a grave question that faced the railroad officials--a definite curtailment of the road's operations meant not only a great loss of money but also a loss of prestige. For this reason the management in Panama conceived the idea of getting out a rate card that would be so prohibitive in price that only a limited number would travel via this expensive route. The charge for first-class passage one way was $25.00; second-class $10.00; personal baggage 5 cents per pound and express $1.80 per cubic foot. The card, which was more or less of a joke and only intended to bridge over a critical time, was duly forwarded to the New York General Offices with the explanation that the tariff would be reduced to reasonable limits in the near future. It was with utter astonishment that the management in Panama received from the New York office the statement that the rates had been accepted without protest and, more astonishing still, is the amazing fact that for a period of twenty years these exorbitant rates were unchanged.
It is small wonder that during this time the company paid a 24% dividend with an occasional stock dividend. The gold seekers continued to come and Panama enjoyed a period of affluence and importance, and the eyes of the world were focused upon her, for the completion of the railroad had but served to stimulate the ambitious dream that nations had indulged in for over two hundred years, of a canal from ocean to ocean. With the increased revenues, progress manifested itself in every department of the road. Splendid terminal wharves were erected and many improvements made. New cars and engines were purchased, hospitals were established and medical attendance was free. The company treated its employees very well, and maintained a patriarchal relationship with them. Since there was not much to Panama, at the time, the company provided everything to its employees. The food they ate and the houses they lived in, was all provided as part of their contract, when the moved to Panama. The company provided free hospitalization, with competent physicians on hand. They provided a well stocked library, with billiard parlors, which contributed much to the pleasure of the employee and it was the Panama Railroad that was administratively responsible for the quaint church known as Christ Church-by-the-Sea, erected in 1865, and which is today the most picturesque place of worship on the Isthmus.
The railroad was maintained by a highly specialized subdivision organization which was extremely simple in operation as compared with methods used today. Every four miles stations were erected, the house being used for the residence of the track master, and under his supervision there were ten laborers who looked after the intervening road. There were twelve track masters and one hundred and twenty laborers, and it was in this manner that the road was kept in perfect condition. However, with the prosperity of the road at its height, there came a dark sequel which had two contributing factors. First, a change in the political life of Panama when New Granada was superseded by the Republic of Colombia, and the original concession given the railroad for a period of 49 years was modified August 16, 1867, to ninety-nine years with heavy impositions on the railroad company which made serious inroads upon its revenues. One million dollars was paid then to Colombia and a subsidy of two hundred and fifty thousand a year was exacted besides having to transport "free of charge troops, chief officers and their equipage, ammunition, armament, clothing and similar effects that may belong or be destined for the immediate service of the Government of the State of Panama." In the report for one year after this measure was put into effect we find there were 4,663 first-class paid fares, while 11,098 passengers and 6,601 troops were carried free.
The second cause of the road's waning glory was attributed to the fact that May, 1869, marked the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, and travel to and from California was directed to this convenient transcontinental route. The business of the Panama Railroad began to decline rapidly, and until the French took up the problem of building a canal we find the finances of the company at a very low ebb. The stocks that had once sold for $335.00 could be bought for $60.00.
However, this depression in the road's affairs did not continue long, and a new impetus was given to all commerce in Panama with the arrival of the Compagnie Universale du Canal Interoceanique on the Isthmus to construct a canal, and we find the Panama Railroad stock at this time listed at $100.00 per share. It was soon evident to de Lesseps, the French engineer who was at the head of the French Canal Company, that it was highly important to obtain full control of the railroad in order to construct the canal, and accordingly he began negotiations to buy out the Panama Railroad. Immediately the shares jumped to $291.00, but this fact did not deter de Lesseps, and in 1881 the French Canal Company bought 68,887 shares of the 70,000 outstanding stock, and thus the control of the Panama Railroad passed into the hands of the French Canal Company.
However, surprising as it may seem, there was very little visible change in the status of the road with the inception of the French control, which was due to the company's charter given in 1849 from the State of New York, which stated expressly that ".... the Directors should be annually chosen in the city of New York and on such notice as shall be directed by the laws of said corporation." It was de Lesseps' intention to remove the New York office to Paris, and it was a blow to him when he learned that under the terms of the charter it would be necessary to continue the American organizations in New York. However, the policy of the railroad's affairs was dictated by the French Canal Company and appointments of the New York officials made by them.
The reign of extravagance that marked all of the French canal operations also affected the railroad; there were some improvements in equipment and terminals, and much unnecessary machinery was purchased, including snow plows. We find in the reports that the Director General rode in a car costing forty thousand dollars. The road was run on a correspondingly lavish scale; large salaries and much graft were the order of the day, and when the French Canal Company collapsed in 1888 the railroad organization went to pieces also and there was a demoralized condition generally in the road's affairs until the Canal Commission arrived in 1904.
A long-range effect of building the railroad across the Isthmus was that it gave Panama a tremendous advantage over other sites as the place to cut an interoceanic canal. Building the road educated engineers in the most minute problems of the area's terrain and climate. The vicissitudes with which the past history of the Panama Railroad is so strongly marked came to an end with the arrival of the Canal Commission, and a new era began.
In 1904, shortly after the Republic of Panama was established, the United States Government paid the French Canal Company forty million dollars for its properties, and of this amount seven million was paid for the Panama Railroad with its franchise and all rights. This included about 4,000 acres of land that went with the railroad property and was included in the terms of the original franchise of the Panama Railroad property. This land, which includes practically all of the city of Colon, was to revert back to Colombia at the expiration of the franchise. Therefore it will be readily seen that this land can not be sold. However, the Republic of Panama, as a successor to the Republic of Colombia, transferred in the treaty between the United States and Panama in 1904 all of its rights to be acquired at the expiration of the franchise. Therefore the United States purchased the Panama Railroad from the French Canal Company with the complex result arising from this purchase that through the Panama Railroad the United States became the owner of much valuable land in Panama but can not sell it under the terms of the franchise given for 99 years and which does not expire until 1966. Meanwhile the Panama Railroad, as a successful real estate dealer makes leases of the land in question to the highest bidders for the desired term of years.
With this complication of ownership it is not surprising then that the Panama Railroad as a historical creation, should baffle and defy definition--a corporation at times, a government organization, and again an institution--but at all times independent and a necessary and vitally important adjunct to the governmental interests in every department of its economic existence on the Isthmus.
The property of the railroad transferred to the United States Government from the French Canal Company Consisted of 48 miles of single track with 26 miles of siding thirty five locomotives, thirty passenger cars, and about 900 freight cars, all of which was more or less obsolete and greatly deteriorated. Engines, cars and machinery were scattered over the entire length of the road and overgrown in many instances with rank vegetation.
It was this state of affairs that confronted the famous engineer, Mr. John F. Stevens, who arrived on the Isthmus in 1905, and it was his genius, coupled with much hard work, that brought order out of chaos. Mr. Stevens had full charge of the railroad as well as the canal. The railroad was strengthened and double-tracked, and wherever it could be used to an advantage, was made an instrumentality in canal construction, which was not difficult because of the fact that the road was in general parallel with and close to the canal axis and connection between the canal and railroad, particularly in the "Cut," was easy to make.
With full government control, and as an adjunct to canal construction, the Panama Railroad assumed new importance --its history fused and overlapping that of the canal and all of its activities, which were stupendous, subordinate to the important task of canal construction.
One of the most important achievements at this time was the reconstruction and relocation of an entirely new railroad at a higher level, made necessary by the Isthmian Canal Commission in 1906, when plans were made for a lock-type canal. Lieutenant Frederick Mears, aged twenty-nine, was put in charge of relocating the Panama Railroad, a large and very difficult task. To build the forty-odd miles of the new line would take five years and cost nearly $9,000,000. It was finished in 1912 and is the present line of the Panama Railroad. Its length is 47.61 miles. The side tracks, yards and other operated tracks represent 183.664 miles. Aside from the Railroad Company's many operations on the Isthmus, it owned and operated a splendid line of steamships plying between New York and Cristobal on the east coast, and on the west coast between Panama and Guayaquil and Buenaventura, Colombia. The important work accomplished by the railroad and steamship line during the world war is a definite illustration of the high degree of organization attained by the road in efficiency, which enabled them to achieve remarkable results.
The railroad played a vital role in the construction of the canal but, with the successful opening of the Canal in 1914, much of its importance was lost and the railway became very run down. In 1977 the railway was transferred to the Government of Panama but continued to lose money. Eventually, in 1998, the Government gave a 50-year lease to a new Joint Venture between the Kansas City Southern Railroad and Mi-Jack Products (an inter-modal terminal operator). After the expenditure of eighty million dollars, the Panama Canal Railway opened, to passengers and freight, in November 2001.
In 2000 and 2001 a large project upgraded the railway to handle large shipping containers, to complement the Panama Canal in cargo transport. The line is now single track with some strategically placed sections of double track. Motive power as of August 2009 consists of ten former Amtrak F40PHs, five EMD SD60s and two EMD SD40-2s from the Kansas City Southern Railroad, and one GP10.
The railroad also has a fleet of several historic passenger cars in service, including PCRC #102, which is a vintage dome car first built for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1938.
When the present railway was constructed after the 1998 agreement, the original line along the breakwater South of Balboa and the line into the terminus at Panama City were abandoned (refer to the map above). A new passenger station, called Corozal, was created near Balboa Port. It was used by the United States Armed Forces as a Commissary before refurbishment for its current role.
The Panama Railway was originally 5 ft (1,524 mm) gauge. The gauge was changed only in 2000 to 4 ft 81/2 in (1,435 mm) so as to use standard gauge equipment. The original gauge was chosen under the influence of the pre-conversion southern United States railway companies, which converted in May 1886 after the American Civil War.
Newspaper account of the opening of the Panama Railroad, January 28, 1855, from The Portland (Maine) Newspaper, February 17, 1855.
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